playground

playground
with LAURA MOSER

O CENT

Illustrations by Lizzi Akana

First published in the U.S. by the Penguin Group Penguin Young Readers Group 345 Hudson Street, New York New York 10014, USA First published in Great Britain in 2011 by Quercus 55 Baker Street 7th Floor, South Block London W1U 8EW Copyright © 2011 G-Unit Books Illustrations © 2011 Razorbill Books All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. A CIP catalogue reference for this book is available from the British Library ISBN 978 1 78087 330 5 This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places and events are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental. 1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2 Printed and bound in Great Britain by Clays Ltd, St Ives plc.

introduction
I’ll be the first to admit that not everything I’ve done in my life has been role-model material. I’ve been on the wrong side of the law. I’ve been in violent situations. I’ve also been a bully. I know how a person gets to be like that. That’s why I wanted to tell this story: to show a kid who has become a bully—how and why that happened, and whether or not he can move past it. Writing Playground was a personal journey for me. There’s a lot of me in Butterball. I drew on events that happened in my childhood and adolescence as well as things I saw around me. I also tapped into some of the feelings I remember having at that age—feelings about my family, feelings about my future, feelings about other kids on the playground. Living life on the edge has taught me a lot, like the fact that being mentally strong will get you ahead in life. But being a bully won’t get you anywhere. Some kids don’t figure that out until it’s too late. Does Butterball? You’ll have to read the book to find out. Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson III New York, New York

"Don't call me that."
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand.” She shifted in her seat, and I looked around the room again. I couldn’t believe how depressing her office was. It was a small room on the second floor of a strip mall, above a dry cleaner’s, and one storefront over from a Popeyes. The whole place stank like week-old fried chicken, and I was supposed to take this skinny white woman seriously? “Listen, lady, I’m sure you mean well, but let’s you and me get one thing straight right now. I’m here because if I get expelled from school, I’ll have to sit around my mom’s apartment all day, and if I have to sit around my mom’s apartment

all day, I’ll go even crazier than I am already, know what I’m saying? So I’ll sit here with you, but only if you ease off.” “That’s perfectly all right, Bur—” “What, are you deaf or something? Didn’t you hear me say don’t call me that like ten times already? I go by Butterball, all right? Bu-tter-ball,” I sounded it out. “It’s not that hard.” The woman nodded, tugging at a few strands that had come loose from her bun. It was impossible to tell how old she was. She could be thirty-five or fifty-five; I really had no clue. “All right then. Do you mind if I ask how you feel about being called Butterball?” “How do I feel?” I laughed. “C’mon, lady, this has to be a joke. How long am I supposed to sit here again? Is it forty-five minutes or an hour?” She pursed her lips together tightly. “Our sessions run forty-five minutes, or as long as I feel is appropriate. And for the record, I don’t answer to ‘lady.’ You can call me Liz or Ms Jenner, whichever you like, but those are your only options.” I laughed again. This woman was really cracking me up. “Liz? Yeah, no, thanks, but no thanks.” “Ahem—Butterball. However you want to play this is fine with me. I’m perfectly happy to go at your pace.”

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playground

“Great.” “All right then.” She folded her arms in front of her and sat very still, staring right at me without speaking. I fixed my eyes on the ugly painting of three sailboats under a smeary blue sky that was hanging right above her head. What kind of fool would choose a picture like that? It had no detail, no point of view, no nothing—like a piece of art chosen as a movie prop to show the character in question has zero taste. From downstairs, the fried-chicken smell kept getting stronger and stronger. And don’t think I didn’t see the way that therapist was staring at me—like she’d better lock up her valuables when I’m around, not that this shitty office had anything worth half as much as my pair of sneakers. I’m not sure how many minutes passed—three, five, ten? But it looked like this white lady wasn’t going to budge. Seemed like she might have even been as stubborn as my mom, and that was saying something. She just kept on sitting there staring at me, until finally I had no choice but to say, “All right, fine. You can ask me questions, but I don’t have to answer them. How’s that for a deal?” You crazy bitch, I was too polite to add.

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“Well, I guess that’s fine, then. I appreciate that. Let’s just start with the basics, Butterball, shall we?” I snorted. “Sure, we shall.” She ignored me. “How about we start with your telling me when exactly you moved to Garden City?” “That’s as good as you got?” I sneered at her, but I was relieved as all hell that she still hadn’t mentioned the reason I’d been dragged to her office that day. Because if there was one thing I would never, ever discuss with this uptight white woman, it was Maurice. Not in a million years.

6

I know Liz had already conferred with the school
principal and my mom and all that shit, and I’m sure she’d read the report about why I’d been sent to her. And she’d probably gasped out loud when she got to the part about how I popped Maurice on the playground last Friday. Tight-assed lady like Liz, I wonder what she would’ve said if I’d told her all the parts the report left out, like how I’d woken up that morning and pulled that special sock out of my underwear drawer and filled it, one after the other, with the D batteries I’d bought at Duane Reade the last time I visited my dad in the city. But there was no way. There was just no way I’d ever

tell Liz or anyone else what really went down that day, or what my reasons for it were. When I got to school that morning, I felt ready for anything, like Bruce Lee, James Coburn, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar all rolled into one large-ass pair of pants. The morning dragged on like it always did, but that day I had no trouble staying awake in geometry or social studies. I was pumped. I knew what I had to do, and I couldn’t wait to do it. Not to get it over with, but to savor every last second of it. My sweet revenge. At lunch I was too hopped up to eat, and anyone who knows me understands how janky that was. But no one noticed because no one at J. Watkins Junior High School gave a shit about my fat ass one way or another. That was about to change; I was sure of it.

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playground

After lunch the playground was more crowded than usual, and that suited my purposes fine. “Hey, Maurice!” I called out when I saw him sitting on the bench by the monkey bars. He was alone and had a book open in front of him, but that was pretty much how it went with Maurice. He had zero friends—why would he?—and spent all his free time reading. When I said his name, Maurice looked up at me with a funny expression, almost like he knew what was about to happen. But I play fair, so I gave him a chance to defend himself. “Hey, Maurice, I think it’s time you learned what happens when you talk shit about me,” I said. “What do you mean, man?” he asked with what might or might not have been a smile. It was always hard to figure out what Maurice was thinking, whether he was making fun of me or not. Well, he was about to stop laughing. “Hey, Maurice,” I said again, and this time I was shouting, walking toward him a little faster. My right hand was in my sweatshirt pocket, all five fingers clenched around the heavy sock that was going to teach Maurice who was in charge from now on. “There’s only one way I can think of to keep your mouth shut, and that’s to shut it myself.”

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Maurice rose from the bench, and now his expression was definitely frightened. He put down his book and took a few steps toward me, and that’s when I gave it to him. I reached into my pocket and BAM! I whacked Maurice right across that self-satisfied grin of his, and I pounded those batteries into his teeth over and over until I felt something come loose.

I heard the sounds around me, the gasps and the cheers and the screams, but in that moment there were only two people in the entire universe, and that was me and Maurice. Maybe the report on Liz’s desk covered the highlights

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playground

of how I’d barely even gotten started when Maurice collapsed onto the asphalt with both hands clasped over his mouth, and how the blood flew everywhere until it seemed to be coming out of his ears. But no stupid-ass guidance-counselor write-up could possibly have described how good it felt, taking out the sock I’d stashed in my backpack and slamming it hard against his face. Take that, Maurice. That’ll show you not to mess with me again, not to spread around lies like they weren’t nothing. When I pulled my hand away from his face for the last time, I suddenly became aware of how the whole scene had gone completely silent all around us: how all of those kids just stood there staring at me like I was finally something. And I’d be lying if I said that didn’t feel pretty damn good.

13

Annoying old Liz was still running through the
most boring questions like I was applying for a job or something. But I was okay with that because as long as she stuck to the small stuff, the minutes would keep flying by. Besides, I kind of liked getting to talk without someone always interrupting me. Ever since my mom and dad split up, it seemed like no one ever had time to listen to anything I had to say. “So, tell me, Butterball—do you have any friends at school?” I glared at her. What kind of question was that, anyway? “Yeah, I’ve got friends. Why wouldn’t I have friends?”

“Sorry, I phrased that wrong,” Liz said, flashing her yellow teeth at me. “Of course you have friends. What I wanted to know was—well, do you care to tell me about them?” “Not really,” I said, and when I saw that didn’t satisfy Liz, I went on, “They’re just guys. No one special. All the black kids at Watkins kind of stick together, mostly because we don’t have much choice in the matter, know what I mean?” I looked over at pale pasty Liz and thought, No, of course she didn’t. “Most of my real friends are in the city, but I only get to see them on the weekends I visit my dad. My boys in school here, I mean, we just hang out during the day, you know—we don’t see each other on the weekends much.” Liz nodded and jotted something down in her cheapo spiral notebook. “So has it been difficult for you, leaving your old friends behind and moving to a new school?” “Nah, why would it be? Like I said, I got plenty of friends here, and besides, I still go to the city all the time. If I didn’t, yeah, times might be a little tougher out here in Garden City.” Another curt nod from Liz. “What about girls? Do you have any . . . romantic interests?” I snorted my drink through my nose at this. “Oh,

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playground

man, you really have a funny way of putting stuff, do you know that? No, I don’t have any ‘romantic interests.’” “All right, then, that’s fine. And what about—” “I mean, there’s this one girl who’s a friend of mine. Her name’s Nia, and she’s really nice to me. Well, not to me exactly. She’s just a nice girl, you know? To everyone. And she’s having a party in two weeks that I’m going to. It should be pretty tight.” Liz looked pretty interested in this little tidbit. “So you’re looking forward to that, then?” “Isn’t that what I just said?” Irritated, I shook my head and looked down at my feet. My Nike X Series had been the coolest shoes ever when I got them almost two years ago, right when my parents split up and were feeling guilty about shit. My feet had grown some since then, but I didn’t care. My feet hardly blistered anymore, and even if those shoes had seen better days, they still looked pretty hot. Yeah, some of the leather had faded on the sides, but nothing a little coloring in with a Sharpie couldn’t fix.

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Still, I knew I needed to make a splash at Nia’s party the weekend after next. That is, if she ever got around to inviting me. Before, I’d been pretty sure it would happen, since Nia had always been so friendly with me and all. But I hadn’t been back to school since the whole deal went down at the playground, and I wasn’t sure what she thought of me now. Maybe if she hadn’t been there, if I hadn’t caught her eye right as I walked over to Maurice . . . Nah, but it didn’t do any good to think that way. Still, I couldn’t stop picturing, like a shot in slow motion, the look on her face after Coach Reese tackled me and led me back into the building with my arms pinned behind my back like I was a drug dealer or something. Nia was standing there with her mouth hanging open, and she looked scared to death—of me. I heard a sound in the outer lobby. “Yo, I think it’s time for me to take off. My mom’s working tonight, so she doesn’t have time to sit around waiting for me.” I rocked out of my seat; I couldn’t wait to get out of that crazy fried-chicken-smelling cave. “All right, Butterball. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you today, and I look forward to our next meeting. I think the two of us can make a lot of progress together, I really do.” “Yeah, whatever.” And I was out of there.

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